Archive for the 'themes' Category

Pre-Paper Part Five: Genre

April 16, 2006

7. Genre: what kind of play is this? How does genre relate to main action and theme?

"The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark" is the play's title in the First Folio, and you know it's not a Comedy because everyone ends up dead instead of married. Tragedy is a fun idea to discuss. I follow the line of thinking that says Tragedy works by giving the hero a tragic flaw, something that simultaneously defines the character, makes the audience care about the character, and brings about the character's downfall — it's that paradox that sucks people in. Hamlet is defined by "thinking too precisely on th' event," his delay together with his uncanny ability to articulate the inner workings of the human mind in torment (and for me, for this production, I'm connecting this to the idea of denying change). We love him for this, we're fascinated by him because of it, and yet it is this exact quality which brings about his downfall. By thinking instead of acting, he delays too long and kills Polonius instead of the King, and thus brings about the deaths of his girlfriend, his mother, his best childhood friends, and himself. Along with the tragic flaw, the protagonist of a tragedy needs a certain measure of self-awareness, and Hamlet is perhaps the most self-aware character in all of literature.

Hamlet is also a Revenge Tragedy, though one that transcends the genre. Revenge Tragedy was familiar to Elizabethan audiences — who had seen an earlier version of the story of Hamlet on stage a decade or so earlier. Typical conventions of Revenge Tragedy, present in other plays from the period immediately preceding Shakespeare's Hamlet, include a ghost urging revenge, some form of delay (usually just to allow for plot complications), and the death of the revenger. The traditional theme of the Revenge Tragedy is that revenge is a sin; this is compelling because even though we know that answering violence with violence can only lead to a downward spiral with nothing getting solved, it's easy to sympathize with someone trying to right a wrong. On the most surface level, Shakespeare's Hamlet follows these conventions and fits the definition. But most Revenge Tragedies don't delve anywhere near so deep into the human psyche. Shakespeare saw in the idea of Revenge an opportunity to explore humanity's relationship with death and our fear of the unknown — our fear of change.

Pre-Paper Part Four: Main Action and Theme

April 15, 2006

These are two of the big ones, on which all else depends. I've already talked a lot about the Main Action, but it always bears repeating. One of the chief tasks facing the director — in rehearsals and design meetings, and also press interviews and so forth — is to constantly articulate ideas, and the Main Action is the central idea of the production. The more I talk about it, and the more I write about it in this blog, the better able I'll be to articulate it and everything that flows from it in rehearsal. When I'm directing a production without writing a blog about it, I drive my wife and friends crazy just trying to practice talking it all through. (Okay, maybe I'm doing that now anyway…)

I haven't talked as much about Theme. There are many ways to define Theme, and most plays worth talking about have multiple themes that could be seen as central. Just as I find it useful to narrow the Main Action down to one simple sentence, I also find it useful to choose one Theme to bring to the forefront in each production. Different productions of the same play might choose different themes (though secondary themes in each production don't need to be ignored or suppressed). The Theme, for these purposes, is a simple statement of the moral or lesson implied by the story of the play. It can be instructive, cynical, optimistic, or mind-blowing — it can be anything, so long as it is what you understand to be the message of the play, inherent in the text. I like to look at it as the result of the Main Action: if you perform this action, this will be the result. Often this is accomplished with a twist, in that the result of the Main Action is the opposite of what you would expect or what the main character intended.

One more point before I get to it. The pre-paper outline asks for three examples of lines from the text that best illustrate the Theme (it asks a similar question for each Character). This is incredibly useful for a director. If you know the three most important moments in the play for the theme, plus the three most important moments in the play for the plot (the turning points), and the three most important moments of the play for each character (and so on like this), you know how to stage the play. Put those important moments into focus: set them off from every other moment by giving them unique and interesting staging or by suddenly changing the rhythm. (Also be sure the set is designed to give you opportunities for staging these important moments.) That's where all this analysis turns into something tangible and effective on stage.

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Jan Kott, Brecht, and rethinking the plot summary

April 10, 2006

Finally picked up a copy of Jan Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary, on the repeated advice of Lucas Krech. It's fantastic — essentially advocating the idea that great art is that which speaks in a particular way to each new and different age or generation. Or turned around: in whatever time and place you find yourself, you can find your own way of approaching and understanding the great works of art. He's writing in mid-20th-century Poland, and he talks a lot about the politics of war in Shakespeare. He quotes — as do many other people writing about Hamlet — Brecht's Little Organum for the Theatre, in which Brecht breaks down the plot of Hamlet from an unashamedly political point of view:

After some hesitation as to whether he should add one bloody deed to another, Hamlet…meets at the sea shore young Fortinbras… Following his example he turns back, and, in a scene of barbaric slaughter, kills his uncle, his mother, and himself, leaving Denmark to the Norwegians. Thus we observe how… the young man, already somewhat stout, badly misuses his new knowledge aquired at Wittenberg university. This knowledge gets in the way… His reason is impractical when faced with irrational reality…

Here's the thing. I don't agree with Brecht's take on Hamlet as a legitimate straightforward analysis of Shakespeare's play as written. It willfully ignores many central aspects of the story, and overemphasises others. But it's all done for a very specific purpose — finding a way in to the play that will reveal its special relevance to a particular group of people in a particular time and place. And there's something about that purpose that appeals to me very strongly.

Of course, I'm working in a completely different time and place for a completely different audience. I'm going to choose different aspects of the story on which to focus, and different aspects to downplay. This is all as it should be, so long as I am similarly striving to bring the play to life in the most compelling possible way for this specific audience (and maybe with a little more respect for the source material).

Much as I may disagree with the specifics, reading Brecht's biased and somewhat devious plot summary makes me rethink some things about the way I'm working. Just yesterday I wrote that the reason a director should write out a plot summary is merely to wrap her mind around the narrative of the play — I even said it probably wouldn't make for interesting reading. Brecht uses the plot summary to state his point of view about the play, his directorial focus, and it makes for very interesting reading indeed. So here is a revision of my plot summary of Hamlet, dropping all pretenses of objectivity:

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The Pre-Paper, Part One

April 9, 2006

For every play my classmates and I directed in grad school, we had to write a pre-production paper before rehearsals began and distribute copies to each directing student and professor. We spent one day of class discussing each paper — and when I say “discussing” I mean beating the crap out of every flaw (especially on the part of the professors). We dreaded the day we had to present, but also thrilled at the chance to get such honest feedback.

We were given a set outline for the paper, two pages with twenty-five bullet-points we had to address. The killer was always #5: “Main action or spine of the play in one succinct sentence.” But there were other doozies: “Concept. A succinct overview of your approach to production. Bearing in mind the connection to main action and theme, is there a metaphor or unifying image that captures the psychic and/or physical space as you envision it?” Addressing all these questions, writing the pre-paper, meant being ready to direct the play.

I’m going to try to write a pre-paper for this production of Hamlet. It may not happen in order, but I’ll try to hit every bullet point, one or maybe more per post. Here we go.

Professional Director Training Program
Outline for Pre-production Paper
Papers and scripts must be circulated no later than 5 pm on the Friday before your presentation. It is assumed that prior to circulating your pre-production paper you will have broken the play into beats and followed the play analysis model and vocabulary articulated by Jon Jory.

Director’s Statement and Goals

1. A short paragraph describing why you’ve chosen the play you will be directing. What passion, insights, inspiration can you share with us as you undertake this assignment?

There are two ways to answer this question. The first is that I didn’t choose to direct Hamlet at all — I was hired for it after directing a successful production of The Misanthrope for the indoor wing of Shakespeare-by-the-Sea last year. But it’s probably better to answer the question as if I had chosen Hamlet, because in some sense I’ve spent the last twelve or maybe fifteen years getting myself to a place where I could direct this play.

I love directing Shakespeare. I think I’m at my best as a director in the early rehearsals of a Shakespeare play — helping the actors take ownership of the language, finding staging that brings it to life. On a certain level, I chose to direct Hamlet because it’s so much fun to take on this kind of challenge, to engage with a play like this. And this play is arguably the most challenging and therefore most engaging of the canon.

More specifically, though, this particular play has captured my imagination with the complexity and depth of the prince and his plight. Shakespeare took a simple revenge story and used it to tap right into the fundamental sense of doubt that every human being contends with in one way or another. I’ve read all kinds of analysis on Hamlet’s delay, and I’ve come up with my own ideas about it, but at the most immediate level this is a play about uncertainty, about not knowing what to do, about feeling lost. We’ve all felt these things. Hamlet feels them at least as much as any of us, and articulates these feelings better than anyone. When people ask me what I look for in a play, I usually say I want to direct plays that are intensely personal. No play is more personal than Hamlet.

And maybe there’s a third way to answer the question of why I chose this play. I’m moving back to the Bay Area this summer, after three years of grad school and three years freelancing in Los Angeles. This is the last play of this chapter of my life, and maybe the biggest challenge. What a perfect choice.

the main action and the design concept

March 16, 2006

I wrote most of this post late last night; finishing it up now. Apologies for the length.

The first meeting with the designers is tomorrow. I’m never sure exactly what to expect at these meetings — it’s different at every theatre. Sometimes I’ve gone in with a fully developed concept for the play, including a rough set design. Other times I’ve gone in with some ideas about the play itself but looking to make the design choices in complete collaboration with the designers. Usually it’s somewhere in between.

Here’s what I have as of now:

The play is famously difficult to narrow down to a single theme or action. Is it about revenge? Ambition? Hesitation? Thinking too much? Is it about family? Loss? Fate? Sin? Death? Of course it’s about all these things and a lot more, but a production of the play has to find a single angle from which to view the whole package. A central action or through-line, a fundamental question that the play asks and the way in which the play answers or at least addresses that question. Something that makes sense out of every scene, that reveals the underlying connection between every character’s superobjective, that places the main character’s journey in a symbolic and thematic context that gives the story its greater meaning. All the choices that a production makes are informed by this understanding of the play — talking productively about the design without having this nailed would be impossible.

So for me, for this production, as of now, the angle from which I can view the whole play is the idea of change. Hamlet is unable or unwilling to accept change, specifically he refuses to accept and move on from his father’s death. The first time we see Hamlet, he is being told to stop mourning, to move on, to accept that his father is dead and that life goes on. Hamlet refuses to do this; in fact, he’s furious that his mother has accepted this change to such an extent that she’s already remarried. When Hamlet is told to revenge by the ghost, he readily agrees — but as soon as the ghost leaves the stage, Hamlet begins to plot and plan his antic disposition and two months pass before he does anything else. I now believe that Hamlet delays his revenge because it would mean accepting his father’s death, and that all the other reasons — including especially the few that he articulates — are merely excuses.

This sets up Hamlet’s fundamental problem. He has two choices. One would be to follow the ghost’s order and kill his uncle. If he does this immediately — as he repeatedly tells us he could despite tardy claims about proving the ghost is real or sending Claudius to hell — the tragic deaths of Ophelia and Gertrude (not to mention Polonius and Laertes and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) are avoided, and it’s entirely plausible that Hamlet could live through it and even become King. Hamlet’s other option is to decide not to take revenge — in which case nobody dies, and eventually the crown passes to Hamlet anyway. But committing to either of these options would require Hamlet to let go of his father’s death, to accept the change and move on. So Hamlet is stuck, unable to take revenge and unable to decide not to take revenge.

And, of course, the longer he stays stuck in that position the worse the situation gets. His actions and objectives in each scene are all about getting everyone else to stop changing or to stop accepting change. Ophelia rejecting his courtship, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betraying his friendship, and Gertrude being with Claudius all amount to changes that Hamlet tries to fight. When Hamlet runs out of excuses, he finally does take action — only to kill Polonius, who was spying on Hamlet entirely because of Hamlet’s act of madness. All the deaths of the final act are set into motion here. In other words, Hamlet has delayed too long and brought the tragedy down on his own head. Hamlet’s refusal to accept change leads directly to his downfall; it is his tragic flaw.

I haven’t slept on this one yet. We’ll see if I still feel this way tomorrow. But right now it seems like a solid base on which to build, a starting point, a way in to the play. Change. To deny change.

Knowing that the play is about change is a tremendous help in making choices about the design. If Hamlet’s superobjective is to deny change, the design should create a world in transition, a world which is undergoing massive change that Hamlet is unable to stop. The design can provide the obstacle to the action of the play.

The other thing to keep in mind is the theatre itself; the venue and the budget and the audience. Who is the audience? What are they expecting? Is it better to meet or to confound their expectations? Shakespeare-by-the-Sea does two outdoor touring Shakespeare productions every year. I missed the shows last summer because I was up in Berkeley, but I directed a production of The Misanthrope for their indoor wing at the Little Fish Theatre last year so I know a lot of the people and have some idea of what’s expected. The photos on their website all show very colorful Renaissance costumes; this is a family-friendly sort of deal and presumably an audience that isn’t interested in high concept or extreme stylization. The Artistic Director has told me I don’t have to stick to the Renaissance, but I get the idea that this isn’t the time for another post-apocalyptic nightmare production.

So that’s the challenge. A period setting that satisfies this theatre and its audience and their demand for pretty costumes while truly setting up a world in transition, a world consumed with the idea of progress and change. The Industrial Revolution seems like a great answer — progress made manifest in machinery and steam. The cannons that Claudius commands be shot off in celebration of his drinking might connect to this, especially because Hamlet complains about them early in the play only to have Fortinbras order them to shoot as Hamlet’s memorial in the play’s final line. The men can be in waistcoats and tails — and I found a treasure trove of visual research (a book of illustrations by Gustav DorĂ©) that shows the great variety that’s possible with this. I’m also taken with the beautiful and elegant posters of Alphonse Mucha, which are from a later period — but I have no problem mixing up periods a bit, especially to get at an idea of change. So maybe anything between Napoleon and World War One is fair game, keeping it consistent through color and maybe fabric. Old Hamlet’s “armor” could be a uniform from Waterloo, and Fortibras could come in at the end as a World War One soldier. DorĂ© plus the unanchored period gives us the variety we need in order to give the audience visual clues about the characters and to set up the idea of change. Mucha gives us a visual style (for both costumes and sets) that is elegant and beautiful.

Why does Hamlet delay?

March 15, 2006

The ghost might be a devil, tricking Hamlet into committing a sin and thus damning his soul to hell.

He needs to prove to all of Denmark that Claudius is guilty, so that he won’t be punished for killing the King — and so that he can become King himself.

He needs to outwit Claudius, who is wary of Hamlet from the beginning.

He shares the Elizabethan belief that revenge is a sin, and that the revenger will therefore go to hell.

He knows he’s in an Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, in which the hero first becomes the thing he’s taking revenge against and then dies.

He’s afraid of death.

He doesn’t believe in himself.

He needs to catch Claudius in the act, so that Claudius will go to hell and not heaven.

He’s mad.

What he actually wants isn’t revenge at all — he wants everyone to grieve for his father and that’s what he’s really going after.

He doesn’t delay at all. Hamlet is a man of action. The appearance of delay is due to the complexity of the plot.

He doesn’t know why he delays (as he repeatedly says). We don’t need to know either.

By taking revenge, he would be giving up control of his life to Fate, and he’s not ready for that.

He somehow equates taking revenge with accepting his father’s death, and he’s not ready for that.

He wants to be sure he’s doing the right thing.

He needs validation from someone else that revenge is the right thing.

He thinks too much.

He can’t make up his mind.

…Feel free to add your own in the comments section.